Jews across the United States, even cynical millennials, are increasingly looking for solace and answers in the age of Trump.
By Debra Nussbaum Cohen
U.S. synagogues, especially those where rabbis are outspoken about the values espoused by President Donald Trump, are finding that attendance and membership are up – way up – since last November. Call it the “Trump bump.”
It’s happening against the backdrop of the long-term trend of shrinking membership in liberal synagogues. In many places it includes millennial Jews, which makes the change all the more noteworthy. And it’s happening all across the country.
Since the presidential election, 45 new households have joined Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, said Rabbi Michael Adam Latz. “Trump may be bad for the world, but he’s great for shul membership,” quipped Latz, whose synagogue is Reform.
“We have people in their 20s and 30s with pink mohawks and people in their 60s and 70s joining who are saying they were never interested before, but now ‘want to be part of something good that is bigger than ourselves.’”
Latz is an outspoken social justice advocate and Shir Tikvah has become a sanctuary congregation, ready to offer concrete support to immigrants being threatened with arrest by the Department of Homeland Security.
That’s part of the orientation young Jews find attractive, said Gabriel Glissmeyer, 23, who recently joined Shir Tikvah. There are “definitely more people attending since the election, and more young people especially. When I started, there were seven or eight of us consistently going. Now there are 15 to 20,” he said.
“We definitely saw a surge in January and February, and are still seeing more traction among young folks in their 20s and 30s,” said Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie at Lab/Shul. “They are looking for community and action.” His is a “pop-up,” unconventional and independent congregation.
Yet the phenomenon is also visible at establishment places of worship. The wait list to join New York City’s Central Synagogue has more than doubled since the election, from 250 families to over 540. Friday night service attendance is also up, said Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, spiritual leader of the Reform congregation. “I don’t know if this is a Trump bump or not,” she told Haaretz, “but it is quite noticeable.”
And in Berkeley, California, 20 new households have joined Congregation Netivot Shalom since January 1, said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, who is active in many interfaith social justice initiatives.
“In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was an enormous increase in attendance,” said Creditor of his 400-household Conservative congregation. The way people recited the “Prayer for Our Country” also changed: “There was a change in the volume, in a fresh and urgent way,” he said. Though he’s not sure he can attribute the increased attendance to Trump’s presidency, “there are more people praying and more intense prayer,” he noted.
At Los Angeles’ IKAR, “we have seen more people showing up, and a greater intensity and sense of purpose in the davening [praying], organizing and learning,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous. “One person said to me, ‘Since the election, Shabbat at IKAR is my oxygen.’”
The Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, has seen “an increase in the number of worshippers in the months since the election,” said Rabbi Jeff Salkin of his Reform congregation. “I have also seen an increase in the number of people attending our Shabbat morning Torah study,” he said, adding it’s “hard to know what has been getting them to come. But I will say this: Last Friday evening, I offered a prayer for healing for those who suffer from preexisting conditions, and a lot of heads were nodding in agreement,” he said, referring to something that would no longer be covered in the Republican Party’s proposed new health care law. “These are difficult times, and it is clear to me that people want to find the warmth and power of community,” added Salkin.
Membership at Adas Israel in Washington has increased steadily in recent years, said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt. A Trump bump is especially clear at one particular service: the monthly musical Friday night called “Return Again.”
“The Friday after the election, there was a noticeable size difference and feeling in the room, and that has persisted,” said Holtzblatt, noting that about 450 people packed into the space that Friday night and 350 people have come regularly since – a significant increase from before the election. “This past Friday, a couple approached me before the service and told me they had been coming since the first Friday after the election. They found solace and comfort in the service, and told me they would be joining [Adas],” added Holtzblatt.
Congregants have been galvanized around social justice work, even where there hasn’t been a lasting increase in attendance, said some.
“In the weeks following the election and the inauguration, we saw larger numbers,” said Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York, which is independent of any denomination. “People, mostly in shock, disbelief and fear, came to find comfort and hope in prayer and community, and guidance in Torah and Jewish values.
“We have seen a significant increase in the numbers of volunteers in organizing and advocacy work – in particular on refugees and immigration in partnership with HIAS and other anti-bigotry organizations,” added Matalon.
That’s also true in churches. “I haven’t heard of a church attendance bump since the election,” said Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology at Boston University, who studies trends and congregations. “What is very clear is that there is an activism bump,” she said.
“People are looking for an authentic religious experience that is sincere, compelling, addresses the moral questions of the day – and they understand that prayer is political,” said Latz.
One demographer warns that all such evidence is anecdotal rather than statistically reliable. “Actual attendance is a really difficult thing to measure, because there are so many religious congregations,” said Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at Pew Research Center. He noted that there are “north of 300,000 active synagogues, churches and mosques in the United States.”
At some synagogues, the Trump bump is manifesting in ways that go beyond attendance.
“I haven’t seen an increase in attendance, but I have seen a substantial increase in people’s anxiety levels,” said Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Encino, California. “People are genuinely worried about the country. So we have the same numbers praying, but they’re praying harder.”
In suburban Philadelphia, the difference has been detectable mostly at kiddush.
“Talk at kiddush is focused on our president and his ‘performance’ during the prior week,” said Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, a Conservative shul. “We also seem to be consuming more Scotch at kiddush. That may reflect the real Trump bump.”